The Sunday Times

February 13th, 2011

Pretending all poor students are up to university – that’s unfair

Access to university can never be fair, because life is not fair. Unless universities are to become places where absolutely everyone can go, regardless of their abilities or achievements, university access will always be unfair.

Of course you can call any establishment a university, but if by the word university you mean an institution of higher learning, designed for people capable of higher learning, because of their higher than average intelligence, higher than average interest in learning and higher than average experience of studying, then, by definition, a great many people will be excluded. The most demanding universities — those that are part of the global elite — will necessarily be closed to all but a small number.

Politicians and social reformers seem determined to ignore these truths, even the most intelligent of Conservatives such as David Willetts. Last week there was a panicky flurry of government initiatives to ensure what absolutely cannot be ensured — fair access to university. Governments cannot ensure that all children have attentive and literate parents who don’t starve their intelligence by feeding them junk food and ignoring them. Governments cannot ensure that all children have equal intelligence or interests; they cannot restrain pushy parents or drug addicts. Governments here have not even been able to ensure that all children fairly get a barely adequate education, let alone an equal one.

It is unrealistic to imagine that any good university, still less one of the world’s elite, can somehow wave a remedial wand at hopelessly undereducated teenagers who are not remotely ready for university education and instil in them the missing 13 years of learning and discipline. At 18, potential is not enough. The only certain result of letting weak candidates into a university will be to bring about the decline of that university and of this country’s place in international league tables.

Yet last week saw an outburst of furious attacks from ministers on universities and academic freedom, in the name of fairness. Nick Clegg angrily denounced them as “elite institutions”; a source close to him said that “universities should be the greatest agent of social mobility that we have, but too often instead they are serving as instruments of social segregation”.

He pointed out that while 18% of children are disadvantaged enough to be entitled to free school meals, they make up only 1% of Oxbridge students. Less well-off children tend to get into the less selective universities. He demanded that universities “throw open their doors” and make more “differential offers”: this is jargon for admitting underprivileged candidates with lower A-level grades than their more affluent competitors, on the basis of “contextual evidence” about their backgrounds and schools. Perhaps he is unaware that this happens a great deal already; many, if not most, university teachers are anxious to help clever children from bog-standard comps.

Meanwhile, Vince Cable and Willetts sent a sharp letter to the Office for Fair Access (Offa): they announced that leading universities will be forced, if they charge the maximum of £9,000 a year, to accept fixed quotas of students from state schools and ethnic minorities and those with disabilities, so that these groups are more fairly “represented”. They will have to sign an “access agreement” with Offa about how they will provide such places. Any university failing to meet its quota will lose its right to charge more than £6,000 a year.

All this makes Gordon Brown seem positively libertarian. It is astonishing to see a Conservative-led government behaving like old-fashioned, unreconstructed socialists. It is wishful thinking to imagine that any but a few poorly educated teenagers from deprived backgrounds can catch up in just three years.

To imagine so is to ignore the evidence; all discussions on high intelligence agree that constant, repetitive hard study from a young age is essential and universal among the most intellectually able.

Contrariwise, those who have not developed such habits, even the simple habit of conversation with their parents, are at a lifelong disadvantage. A new Department for Education study shows that 53% of boys have not “reached a good level of development” by the age of five in their teachers’ opinions, along with 35% of girls. Sir Michael Marmot, a professor of public health, said the impact of this was “horrendous”. It means “poorer levels of early school development and poorer performance at every school age”.

No amount of Offa access agreements can change this. It would be the most counterproductive kind of social engineering to imagine that such children ought to be included in fairer access quotas at good universities at 18; it would be a disaster for this country’s universities. Is that what Clegg has in mind? These children’s problems start with their parents and their family background.

They may also in some cases start with their basic intelligence. This is a contentious subject, but it is an unquestioned assumption these days that intelligence is equally distributed across all socioeconomic classes. That may be true, but it is only an assumption.

It is well documented that bright and successful young men and women tend to select each other, in a process bleakly called assortative mating, and tend to have bright children. The less bright tend to have children with others who are less bright and tend to produce corresponding children. Genetics is a lottery, of course, but it is conceivable that you would not, in fact, expect inherited intelligence to be equally distributed across all socioeconomic groups. If not, imposing university quotas on the opposite assumption would be a serious mistake and — incidentally — unfair as well.

Fairness is an elusive concept that has driven many good people to do bad or foolish things, which inevitably tend to unfairness of some other kind. This government’s fair access drive is an alarming case in point. If the coalition were truly interested in education and glaring social injustice, it should forget university access — a huge amount is being done about that already — and concentrate all its energies instead on this country’s failing school system. Making allowances, Message Board, page 27